The ancient Greeks were responsible for the first imagination and/or invention of many things that we take for granted in our modern age. These include, but are certainly not limited to, everything from maps, the Olympics, the origins of democracy, to… theater! The Greeks also left us a seemingly infinite cache of mythology, which has been a fertile source for the aforementioned art of theater for millennia. Duncan Pflaster’s new play Nothing But Thunder, playing as part of Dream Up Festival at Manhattan’s Theater for the New City, explores one of those myths. The play tells the story of the notorious demigod Dionysus– the eternally famous deity of fertility, wine, and ecstasy (not necessarily in that order) — and the shepherd Prosymnus (AKA Polymnus).
The first characters we meet in Nothing But Thunder are Dionysus (Spencer Gonzalez) and his slave Xanthius (Matt Biagini). As the child of Zeus and mortal woman Semele, the stunningly handsome Dionysus enjoys the life of a modern-day rock star, complete with the electronic stardust sound effects that materialize with any of his grand entrances. Dionysus enjoys many encounters with beautiful young women, who throw themselves at the demigod like the antecedents to 1970’s-style groupies. After all, in the words of Dionysus’ half-brother Hermes (Eric Hedlund), “What mortal can resist a god?”. Dionysus is worshipped for his flawless looks, being described by one of many female admirers as “more beautiful than the sun“. The unyieldingly loyal Xanthius, in the meantime, can only watch his master’s sexual escapades from a distance.
While his VIP status shelters our Dionysus from such common ancient Greek problems as the plague or fig tree fungus, he eventually seeks something more rewarding than orgies or olive oil massages. Dionysus takes on a larger task: Encouraged by Hermes, he plans to rescue his undead mother Semele (Alyssa Simon) from Tartarus, the realm dedicated to the imprisonment and torture of mortals who have sinned against the gods. It’s not just altruism that motivates Dionysus to make this quest. In a nod to modern celebrity culture, where stars “do good” just for the visibility, this ancient Greek himbo knows that people will talk about it for eternity, giving him some long-term “relevance”. (I mean, he wasn’t wrong; We are, after all, still talking about the myth in 2022…) As the Chorus warns us, this won’t be an easy task. To find the entrance that will transport him to Tartarus, Dionysus must find the “dead center” of the Alkyonian Lake, the deepest lake in the world. Only a secluded fig farmer/shepherd, Prosymnus (Kenny Wade Marshall), can show him the way. At first, both the beary Prosymnus and his no-nonsense sister Adelpha (Katrina Dykstra) are resistant to Dionysus’ cocksure charms. Even the demigod’s full frontal forward pass thrown at the hirsute Prosymnus is unsuccessful, despite the farmer’s bearly-hidden lust for the swarthy son of Zeus. Dionysus eventually makes a promise to Prosymnus, and because the promise is sworn on the River Styx, it is truly binding. Before you can say, “The road to Tartarus is paved with good intentions.”, the semi-divine Mr. D. and his long-suffering slave Xanthius find themselves in the underworld, which is bathed in red lighting. There’s a very motley crew of characters in this Land of the Undead. They include Sisyphus (allowing actor Hedlund to provide some impressive physical humor, as well as reminding us mere mortals not to fuck with the gods); Dionysus’ ex-wife Ariadne (played with deliciously mannered sass by Olivia Kinter); and the larger-than-life ruler of Tartarus, Hades (also played by Wade). Last but not least is Dionysus’ mother Semele, who is being subjected to a particularly cruel form of… uhm , “labor” as punishment.
Will Dionysus rescue his mother? Will he eventually take his place on Mount Olympus as a “full god”? I won’t give too much away. But I will say that even after our main character literally wrestles with the devil and ultimately fulfills one goal, there is still a promise that needs to be honored. Let’s just say that if there was an introduction to the penultimate segment of Nothing But Thunder, it would be, “The wildest is yet to come!” True to the humorous nature of the piece, the scene of Dionysus… hum, “satisfying his end” of the agreement with the now-dead Prosymnus is campy and over-the-top… and, outrageous as it is, it is indeed true to the original myth.
Hades Hell, there’s even a happy ending, which features an appearance by the king of the gods himself, Zeus (also played by Hedlund).
While exploring some universal themes and honoring the original source material, Pflaster’s script and Aliza Shane’s direction maintain a lighthearted tone throughout Nothing But Thunder. Even Semele’s scene of eternal damnation is made hilarious, thanks to the play’s mirthful style combined with the comedic talents of Alyssa Simon. The entire cast, for that matter, is wonderful. In the role of Dionysus, Gonzlez is highly charismatic, whether he’s boasting of his sexual prowess or having his divine hubris brought down a few notches. While no photographs or video footage from ancient Greeks survive today, it’s a safe bet that if there were any pics or vids of Dionysus, he would look and act a lot like Gonzalez. As Dionysus’ less flashy companion, Matt Biagini is perfect as his master’s “reality check” in the pivotal role of Xanthius. Playing both Prosymnus and Hades, Kenny Wade is especially “Divine” in another sense of the word as Hades; he seems to be thoroughly enjoying his role of the humorously sadistic ruler of Tartarus. Wade’s performance seems inspired by another eternal villain, the Wicked Witch of the West (Pay special attention to his hand motions!). In an Ursula-esque touch, he expertly manipulates our hero without actually lying to him. Katrina Dykstra, Eric Hedlund, Olivia Kinter, and Alyssa Simon are all excellent in multiple roles, as well as serving in the play’s Chorus.
The myth of Dionysus and Prosymnus is arguably one of the lesser-known stories in the endless treasure trove of Greek mythology. No doubt, it was the unapologetic man-on-man lust and the rather salacious nature of the story that kept it in the underexplored corners of ancient Greek lore to this day. Playwright Pflaster has noted that his new play is “fleshed out” and embellished from the original story. That said, the original transgenerational themes of lust, ego, identity, the culture of “celebrity”, and redemption are completely intact in this funny, zesty, sexy, and highly entertaining adaptation. Nothing But Thunder is highly recommended, for gods and mortals alike.
Nothing But Thunder is part of the Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City. The play is produced by Cross-Eyed Bear Productions, written by Duncan Pflaster and directed by Aliza Shane with costumes by Amy Overman. Assistant stage direction and stage management are by Roberto Alexander, and intimacy coordination and combat consulting is by Sharron Litwinoff.
This production includes nudity and sexual situations.
Perfromances are Saturday September 10th at 8pm; Sunday, September 11th at 5pm; Monday, September 12th at 9pm; Wednesday, September 14th at 9pm; and Sunday, September 18th at 2pm. Tickets available at:
The Playwright’s Website: www.duncanpflaster.com
(Photos by Duncan Pflaster.)